The idea of the parish church

All Saints’ Anglican Church, Saskatoon

I recently went to my actual parish church (not pictured left) for the first time since moving here nine months ago. I found it mostly, if not entirely, composed of people who were 60+. My guess is that the other Christians living nearby don’t go to this church partly because of the service time, partly because they go to one of the younger, hipper churches in the city centre, whether C of E or otherwise. Maybe some go to the Anglo-Catholic churches in the centre. Some of us would go if our sons napped at a different time, though!

But imagine, if you will, a world where we allowed the parish churches to do what they were designed for. Imagine we didn’t decide that anywhere a bus/car can take us was part of a smorgasborg of Sunday morning options but were members of the neighbourhood congregation.

This is what parish churches were meant for, in a pre-automobile age. When the church started out, the local gathering of Christians was small enough, and most Mediterranean ‘cities’ were the size of modern villages, so all the Christians went to the same church. It was within walking distance.

In bigger cities, and especially after Constantine and the growth of conversion, it became necessary to develop a network of local churches that could service other neighbourhoods — but that were still part of the same acknowledged body of believers as the original ‘founding’ congregation. Eventually, these smaller manifestations of the original central congregation spread to the countryside.

These churches served the paroikia, the area where people lived nearby. That’s the etymology of parish.

The idea of the parish church, then, is that everyone can walk to church. There is a priest attached to your church who can preach, administer sacraments, and counsel you in need. There are deacons and deaconesses to help you in practical ways. All the Christians of the neighbourhood come together to pray, to worship, to learn, to encounter God in a meaningful way.

Now, the following scenario would only work if we did it en masse.

Imagination if we all switched membership to the nearest church in walking distance.

The charismatics would raise their arms next to the genuflecting Anglo-Catholics. The evangelicals would demand hard-core Bible teaching. The liberals would cry out for social justice.

If we started on Advent 1, we’d all be dead by Christmas.

But if we lived on into Lent, with the Anglo-Catholics shrouding the cross and the charismatics reminding us that repentance should lead to joy, while the liberals pointed out that the fast the Lord calls for is to do acts of mercy, and the evangelicals told us that none of this matters without entering into real, personal discipleship with the Lord Jesus — maybe we’d be better for it.

Rubbing shoulders with different ways of being Christian. Fighting for the Gospel side by side rather than scattershot and undirected.

And think what it would do for making disciples in our neighbourhoods.

‘What church do you go to?’

‘St Aidan’s.’

‘Hey, so does that other Christian I met.’

‘We all do.’

That’s a sign of Christian unity, as opposed to: ‘Oh, well, I didn’t like the way they sing Psalms at St Aidan’s, so I go Grace Church.’ ‘I really like the immediacy of the worship with the Vineyard.’ ‘The Bible teaching at King’s Church inspires me.’ ‘St Oswald’s has the best music besides the cathedral.’ ‘Christ Church takes a good line on evangelism.’ ‘Only the Orthodox have a clue what it’s all about.’ ‘All Saints cares for the poor.’

Or, even worse: ‘I had a fight with the minister.’ ‘I hear they’re shallow at that other church.’ ‘They compromise the essentials of the faith.’ ‘They’re not real Christians.’ ‘They aren’t open enough to the Holy Spirit.’ ‘Cathedrals are just about putting on a show.’ ‘They’re too casual at that church.’ ‘Oh, them. It’s all just ritual, from what I hear. No relationship with God.’ ‘You can only hear so many sermons about penal substitutionary atonement before you want to shoot someone in the face, I always say.’

Worshipping God and making disciples together.

That’s the idea of the parish church.

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Blogging Benedict: Entering the monastery

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

According to the Rule of St Benedict, ch. 58, entry into the monastery goes as follows:

  • A few days at the guest house for the persistent
  • Two months as a novice
  • Read the Rule. Can leave if they don’t like it.
  • Six more months. Read the Rule as above.
  • Another four-month testing period.
  • Finally admitted

The three central (famous!) vows:

  • Stability
  • Poverty
  • Obedience

In making these vows, the new monk is stripped in the oratory and clothed in monastic garb. Thus everything he was is gone and everything he is is now invested in the community. He has not even his own clothing. He has no money to provide for himself. He has vowed not to leave. And he has vowed to surrender his own disordered will to that of the community under its abbot.

This is a radical commitment.

Few non-monastic Christian communities today have such radical commitment. Varieties exist in some Anabaptist communities, of course. Most of us don’t belong to those. Most of us belong to congregations that would barely notice if we were gone.

What if we were to invest in stability? This is certainly part of the Benedictine freedom of simplicity, isn’t it? Force yourself to stick with your local church, not merely in spite of the people who annoy you or the preaching that you dislike for one reason or another or the hymns/songs that aren’t your favourites, but specifically to fall in love with those people, that preacher, and find Jesus in that music.

That would take humility, as opposed to just leaving. Not that we should never go, but that we should more often stay instead.

What if we were to invest in the ideal of poverty? This one is possibly harder. Imagine that all your goods belong to the whole Christian community (cf. Acts 2). Then give cheerfully in the collection plate. Share with others. Look for opportunities to do good. Have people over to your house in rich hospitality. Living like that (which I certainly don’t do!) would probably revolutionise how we love others.

What if we were to invest in obedience? This one is probably hardest for our culture. Obedience has been abused, certainly. But Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, makes the point in his chapter about service that choosing to serve others means they can’t walk all over you because you have already willed your act of service. Their own evil hearts may seek to abuse you, but you cannot be abused, for you already wish to serve. That said, I actually do believe in boundaries; if your acts of service for others are harming your family life, for example, you need to find new ways of serving.

What if we were this radically invested in our churches?

Would it make us into better disciples? Would it make more disciples? These are the two questions I am now considering as I read through my notes on Benedict.

How evangelical Anglican churches drive people like me away

My wife and I have just moved to England, and after seven years enjoying the Presbyterian world of the Free Church of Scotland, I’ve been looking forward to soaking in some Anglican worship when we get here. Being believers of an orthodox bent, we found ourselves an Anglican church for yesterday that billed itself as ‘evangelical’.

We may as well have gone to the Vineyard.

Nothing against the Vineyard, necessarily. We worshipped with them a couple of times in Glasgow.

But I’ve been looking forward to plugging into liturgy — BCP or Common Worship — to a form of worship that is not tied to my emotions or those of the leader at the front, to rich prayers rooted in Scripture and tradition, to a community gathered around word and sacrament.

There was nothing ‘Anglican’ about this group of Christians, expect, I suppose, that they are part of an Anglican episcopal structure and believe the 39 Articles.

It’s frustrating for someone like me who identifies as Anglican and evangelical to belong nowhere. I’d rather go to a church that doesn’t make any claims to Anglicanism than to the Baptists with Bishops. We had the same problem in Scotland, in fact.

It’s also frustrating because there is a movement among a lot of the non-Anglican evangelicals to rediscover liturgy, tradition, beauty, hymns, discipline. Yet here, in the homeland of Anglicanism, Anglicans have sold their birth right and live in the same cultural amnesia that American and Canadian evangelicals are just now recovering from!

And so where to go?

I don’t know.